World's Fair


Image: Nagoya Congress Center plus Millenium Falcon reworked from original photo by Paula Pedrosa. link.

Originally made for a series of Nagoya COP10 primers at Boing Boing (1 | 2 | SB | 3 | 4)

I: SORTING OUT THE VERNACULAR

So what is up with this Nagoya thing? Well, it’s a big international meeting that is happening in Nagoya’s Congress Centre (see the picture above), starting on October 18th and lasting until the 29th. No doubt, you weren’t necessarily lured into finding out more by the conference’s bouncy theme song. You certainly weren’t intrigued by the reams of official documents, frequently released, yet all stoically written.

The problem is, is that there is a lot of jargon in how all these meetings go down. You have a “Conference of the Parties” (or COP), you have “Conventions,” and you have “Secretariats.” I chose not to mention the “Subsidiary Body” part, because I believe that would have formally made the previous sentence the most boring in the universe. And as if that wasn’t bad enough, a lot of these documents have been written in a painful policy speak/legalese type of language, seemingly in an effort to make readers endorse the extinction of the writers responsible. Worse still, Nagoya isn’t getting a ton of media coverage, and that means you don’t tend to have needed public commentary like you did with similar recent outings (for instance, Copenhagen comes to mind).

Lucky for us, there seems to be a lot of similarities between these United Nations’ affairs and how planetary politics appear to be run in the world of Star Wars. In any event, the similarities are good enough to warrant having a go at bridging the two. This might be simplifying things a bit, but the analogy would basically work a little like this:

Convention (and specifically the Convention on Biological Diversity): I’ll write more on this later, but the CBD is what all the fuss in Nagoya will be about. It’s essentially an international agreement currently supported by a whole bunch of countries, which is basically up for review as well as a reboot. Also, because it’s classified as a “Convention” this agreement is bound by international law. It’s not like participating in a vote where the majority wins – you’re either in or you’re out. The goal, of course, is to come up with a document that everyone, or at least, almost everyone, is good with – understandably, not an easy thing to do. In Star Wars, this would be analogous to some sort of galactic treaty being mulled over (except that obviously the words galactic treaty are way cooler than convention).

Conference of the Parties (COP): This is a collective term for all the countries who are technically already “on board” with the Convention – this has a variety of meanings including the act of signing the convention, and then managing to get your national governments to back it up (this would technically be called “ratifying” the convention). In all, there are currently 193 countries who are in the Conference of the Parties.” In Star Wars terms, the COP would be analogous to all of the members of the Galactic Republic who have agreed to follow the laws bound to said galactic treaty.

Secretariat: In UN affairs, the term Secretariat more or less refers to a smaller group of individuals who comprise the administrative core of a particular department or convention. This sounds very close in structure to the role of the Galactic Senate. You might also remember that in Star wars, there was a Supreme Chancellor, who headed this Secretariat. In the CBD’s case, this would be the Executive-Secretary, a fellow by the name of Ahmed Djoghlaf.

Nagoya-COP10? In Star Wars, the movies anyway, a lot of the political stuff happens in that great big black room with all of the fancy floating balconies. This was the Senate Building on the planet Coruscant, which to me, is a little like the General Assembly hall in the United Nations New York headquarters. However, for these sorts of Convention meetings, (this being the tenth one for this particular COP – hence it being called “COP10″), they tend to get held in big conference centers, and in suspiciously nice locales. In other words, for our Star Wars analogy, the members of the Galactic Republic involved in the treaty probably wouldn’t meet in Coruscant: instead, they would find another host planet. As well, it would be unlikely for such an analogous meeting to be held at a place like Hoth (too cold) or Tatooine (too dusty), but rather a planet like Alderaan (before it was destroyed anyway) or Naboo, since both are apparently beautiful.

SBSTTA: Of course, throughout all of this, you’re probably wondering where the Jedi fit in. In Star Wars, members of the Jedi Order were essentially “keepers of the peace in the Republic.” Furthermore, the Jedi Council was often key in providing objective information and advice. This means that they were valued for being a source of knowledge and wisdom, and also a sort of a police force to ensure that folks follow the laws of the treaty. In our Convention on Biological Diversity context, there is something known as the SBSTTA (which unfortunately is not a droid name but a busy mess of an acronym for “Subsidiary Body on Scientific, Technical and Technological Advice.”) This, I guess, can be thought of as a group of “Jedi except without lightsabers plus no cool special powers.” In other words, while this SBSTTA aims to play an objective advisory role, in particular, helping the COP on the scientific and technological nuances of biodiversity, they have no part what-so-ever in enforcing the convention itself. Kind of like a bunch of Jedi’s who will tell you their expert opinion on the issues being discussed, but are unfortunately incapable of kicking ass on members who choose to disregard intergalactic law. This is actually one of the big problems in these international environmental treaties – there isn’t really a decent mechanism in getting COP members to follow through.

It’s also worth noting that the SBSTTA is analogous to what the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) does in Climate Change matters, except in a much smaller and some say slighter way (more on this later).

The Emperor? In Star Wars, this was of note, being the bit about the Senator and then Supreme Chancellor Palpatine managing to scheme his way into creating the Galactic Empire. In the CBD world, there really isn’t such a person or country member in the COP, but there are factors where different countries have different influences. Probably the best example is to think of something like the Trade Federation in Star Wars. This was an alliance based on economical clout – somewhat similar to how one might view the countries of the G8 or G20 these days. As well, you can imagine that countries in less fortuitous economic standings (i.e. developing countries) have an interest in making decisions together, which is what does happen in these affairs. As a side bar, I should note that, ironically, the Nagoya conference does “technically” have an Emperor involved – this would be Emperor Akihito, the head of the Japanese Imperial Family and monarch of the host country.

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II. WHY CARE ABOUT BIODIVERSITY?

Given that the Nagoya COP10 meeting is all about the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), it’s probably a good thing to talk a little bit about the convention itself. Let’s start with the general stuff, i.e. what it represents, and then save the specifics for later posts.

Put simply, it’s the international treaty whose aim is to look after the Earth’s biodiversity. Here, the CBD defines biodiversity as:

“the variability among living organisms from all sources including, inter alia, terrestrial, marine and other aquatic ecosystems and the ecological complexes of which they are a part; this includes diversity within species, between species, and of ecosystems.”

In other words, the CBD is there to suggest (as well as enforce) that we as humans, should try to have a decent relationship with all of the other organisms found on our planet.

This might sound obvious, but one of the problems with the notion of biodiversity is that sometimes, it feels like it just doesn’t get enough credit – somehow it doesn’t feel like a “serious issue.” You say the word biodiversity, and most likely these idyllic images of the someplace scenic pop into your head – maybe, you even imagine lots of birds chirping in the background, a deer or two in the distance, and of course, a bear who may actually be waving at you. For lack of a better word, Biodiversity just feels “nice.”

However, biodiversity stewardship is really mostly about coming to terms with the fact that we, as humans, tend to over emphasize our importance, and forget that at the end of the day, we have a very strong connection and dependence to the other 20 million or so species out there.

I find it akin to the mother of all Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon exercises, since almost everything we subsist on, make, do, and draw inspiration from, has a tenable link to at least one species of organism out there.

Think about what you’re doing right now. You’re probably sitting in a locale/town/city that was likely settled because of its proximity to certain conveniences: good soil for growing crops, forests for lumber to build things, decent water supply, terrain that was easily traveled, etc. The accommodation you’re sitting in is almost certainly full of things that have organic origins – the wood used in the structure itself, the fabric in many of your clothes, the objects that contain things like natural rubber, most anything with a pleasant scent. Then, of course, you have energy to move, and think, and be, and this energy is coming from your food, perhaps the most obvious connection to biodiversity we can think of. Finally, as you read this post on Boing Boing, the computer is rife with inspirations drawn from biodiversity – you are, afterall, surfing on the “web” and there’s also a good chance you’re using a “mouse” to do this.

In other words, no offense to Kevin Bacon (whose surname also has a biodiversity link), but why not have a Six Degrees of Just Bacon.

Anyway, in the general sense, this is what the Convention on Biological Diversity is trying to do. It’s trying to work biodiversity into our collective consciousness, encourage governments across the world to realize its value, and then get everyone to behave in a responsible manner.

Of course, the big question is, “does it work?” And the short answer is, “No.”

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IIB: SIDEBAR ABOUT UNFORTUNATE ACRONYMS

Just a quick Nagoya related sidebar.

I’m not sure if it’s deliberate or if it’s accidental, but the UN seems to be on a roll with ironic convention acronyms. In case, you weren’t aware, a convention is international politics jargon for “treaty.” There’s two in particular that involve the environmental landscape:

First is the U.N.F.C.C.C. – this is short for the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (the thing that gave us Kyoto and Copenhagen), but as my friend Allen pointed out, doesn’t it sound more like a curse that a UN member with a stutter might say when working with other UN members?

Then we have the C.B.D., the Convention on Biological Diversity, the subject of my ongoing posts on Nagoya (part 1|part 2). Except that CBD is also the acronym for Cannabidiol, which according to Wiki is, “a cannabinoid found in Cannabis. It is a major constituent of the plant, representing up to 40% in its extracts.”

We can only hope that there isn’t any confusion on this matter for the delegates at Nagoya.

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III: THE CHALLENGE: OR WHY DOES IT SUCK?

O.K. now on to business… Here are the Convention on Biological Diversity’s three basic objectives:

1. The conservation of biological diversity
2. The sustainable use of the components of biological diversity
3. The fair and equitable sharing of the benefits arising out of the utilization of genetic resources

They also have – or had rather – a goal, a biodiversity target, which was the following:

In April 2002, the Parties to the Convention committed themselves to achieve by 2010 a significant reduction of the current rate of biodiversity loss at the global, regional and national level as a contribution to poverty alleviation and to the benefit of all life on Earth.

This was also the reason why 2010 was proclaimed as the International Year of Biodiversity.

Unfortunately, this target is way off the mark. Even the Convention itself has said this (you can read the formal admittance of this with this pdf), while other media outlets have been much more emphatic about its failure. But regardless, as far as all can tell, biodiversity loss rates have not been reduced – not even close.

But this policy speak vernacular is part of the problem. Because “biodiversity” is such a huge, nuanced, and multifaceted issue, and because it’s also a word and concept that’s tricky to pin down in a public setting, it’s really quite difficult for governments to follow along with the desires and targets of the CBD.

For instance, this challenge becomes immediately obvious, if you look at the mandates again and decide to nitpick.

“The conservation of biological diversity.”

This statement is very much about environmental stewardship, and the effects of human impact in general. It is, in many ways, the heart of the convention, but it is also an incredibly loaded statement.

Here, one has to simply query what exactly is the best way of doing this? And then how would you measure it? Is this done by focusing on projects that look at a few species at a time; projects that survey a specific locale; or by setting up general but scientifically undefined benchmarks, such as “You must not log X% of your land.” If so, can your Convention deal with all of the different contexts associated with different biomes, climates, species, etc.

To put things in perspective, we don’t even technically know the number of species out there, we only have limited specific knowledge of diversity within species, and we’re closer to understanding the popularity of LOL cats than having even a glimmer of understanding how Nature’s grand algorithm makes everything all work together.

In fact, if you look at this busy chart (brace yourself if you do choose to click it – it looks more complicated than a biochemistry pathway chart from hell), you can see a time line of all the many different and new elements of the CBD that have been created over the years, each with a specific mandate dealing with a specific element (i.e. you get corals, I get forests, he should get invasive species, who’s game for sub-humid terrains?) This just gives you a taste of the complexity involved, and consequently, demonstrates the challenge in “measuring” how biodiversity is conserved.

“The sustainable use of the components of biological diversity”

This statement is also looking at impact, but attempts to look at it from the “what’s in it for me” angle. As mentioned earlier, the fruits (sometimes literally) of biodiversity are a big part of the everyday items we and the rest of society consume. As such, they are not only following the limits of the natural world, but they are also governed by the mechanics of economics, and vulnerable if not often defenseless against market forces. From this reasoning, you’d think that the economic values of “the components of biological diversity” have been properly laid out.

Unfortunately, this isn’t the case. Although there are studies available that attempt to “price” these biodiversity resources (the most notable of which is the Millenium Ecosystem Assessment released in 2005), the fact of the matter is that much more needs to be done. However, this, too, is not an easy proposition. Coming up with effective ways to assign “value” to biodiversity, and perhaps more challenging, assigning them in such a way that is comprehensive in scope and universally accepted, is another difficult task.

To get a sense of all the little nuances involved in assigning value, take a look at this graph from a case study done by The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity (TEEB).

What this remarkable figure attempts to compare, is the traditional market value (1998 prices) of the “timber logged to supply construction and materials sector in China over the period 1950-98“, versus the “ecosystem ‘externalities’ associated with this logging, which are not reflected in market prices” (text from the TEEB case study). In other words, the timber has a much higher inherent worth when you consider the environmental impact it has on other goods and services. These are things such as the effects due to the deforestation of said timber: like loss of precipitation, land stability for building, the increased susceptibility to flooding, etc. In fact, the graph here basically suggests that the timber might be worth much more left where it is!

Now, there’s likely all manner of issues with the numbers obtained with these figures: maybe they are too approximate, maybe they work only within the Chinese scenario, maybe they are missing X, Y and/or Z. But the underlying argument, is that it’s probably worth it for governments and businesses to look into such things in detail, and possibly even figure out a way to include (or “internalize”, if you want to use the jargon) them into their methods of accounting. However, this is generally not the case. Certainly, it’s poorly defined in the government arena. And for businesses?

A review by PwC of the annual reports of the 100 largest companies in the world by revenue in 2008 found 18 companies that mentioned biodiversity or ecosystems34. Of these, 6 companies reported actions to reduce impacts on biodiversity and ecosystems and 2 companies identified biodiversity as a key ‘strategic’ issue. 89 of the same 100 companies published a sustainability report, 24 of which described actions to reduce impacts on biodiversity and ecosystems, while 9 companies identified impacts on biodiversity as a key ‘sustainability’ issue. (The TEEB for Business report, 2010).

Obviously, more needs to be done here as well.

“The fair and equitable sharing of the benefits arising out of the utilization of genetic resources.”

This objective is all about sharing and being fair. This too has been hardly successful. A good way to get a handle on what this objective is all about is to provide two general examples.

1. I am a poor country and I have a biodiversity related natural resource (say, a forest) that would be beneficial to my economy and therefore my constituents. I don’t think it’s fair for you to tell me what to do with this resource – even in the name of environmental stewardship. More so, since wealthy countries have already benefited from their past unenvironmentally friendly acts (say, cut down their forests). If you’re going to insist on telling me what’s the right thing to do (again in the name of environmental stewardship), should there be at least some compensation for it?

2. In my country there is this freaking awesome plant that we use for medicinal purposes. The whereabouts of this plant, the best time to harvest, and the proper way to prepare it, is knowledge that has been passed on for many years, all the way back to my earliest ancestors. Not only is the plant “freaking awesome,” but it is both economically and culturally important. Now apparently, folks in business attire are planning to go “genetic and biochemical” on the plant. They hope to distill its “freaking awesomeness” to a single tangle of atoms: then possibly market it, and do business with it. To this, I say that I am not against the discovery of a “freaking awesome” tangle of atoms, but I wonder if there shouldn’t be “fair” compensation to my culture. After all, the relationship between my country and the plant was what amassed all that prior knowledge: knowledge that arguably provided the crucial first step for the folks in business attire.

The problem, of course, is that both of these scenarios require a somewhat altruistic approach, which for governments can be tricky at the best of times.

Anyway…

in summary, even though I’ve tried to discuss the difficulties of the Convention on Biological Diversity by only focusing on its three main objectives (the Convention is actually more structured around a long list of “goals”), this simplistic approach still nicely shows the difficulty of the whole affair.

Still, it’s not like good things haven’t happened. There are countless lovely instances where excellent work has been done, particularly at the local level, and particularly related to objective number 1. There was even a recent agreement that will hopefully shed a bit of light on how objective 3 might plod along.

However, the intention of the CBD is to provide a strong overarching plan for all members of the COP to follow, and from that vantage point, it hasn’t succeeded at all. The 2010 targets are seriously off, and biodiversity as a whole is suffering tremendously.

Except that now, we have another crack at rewriting the code behind the CBD. This is what Nagoya-COP10 will be all about: a sort of “o.k. people, we’ve kind of screwed around for the last decade or so, but we’ve learned some stuff, and hey, if we’re gonna set the scene for the next few decades by doing something, we should do it now” conference.

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IV: NOW WHAT?

So what should be done at Nagoya? This is the 20 million species plus question. And for all of the criticism that I’ve (and others) have proffered, we should appreciate that the task at hand is going to be quite the challenge. If nothing else, this is immediately clear from the often anthrocentric (humans rule the Earth and are just playing our role on the evolutionary front, so deal with it!) commentary left on biodiversity pieces throughout the internet.

There is a somewhat official Strategic Plan document out there, one that (with a remarkable lack of brevity) highlights 2020 goals and attempts to identify the process and partners to be involved. It’s worth a look, although probably best absorbed by taking in the tables shown on page 19 on. It involves a list of some 20 different target statements. Some of which are short, bouncy, although still vague like a twitter tweet:

1. By 2020, everyone is aware of the value of biodiversity and what steps they can take to protect it.

Others are more to the point:

11. By 2020, At least 15% of land and sea areas, including the most critical terrestrial, freshwater and marine habitats, have been protected through effectively managed protected areas and/or other means, and integrated into the wider land- and seascape.

A few establish direct talking points for individual COP members:

16. By 2020, Each Party has an appropriate, up-to-date, effective and operational national biodiversity strategy, consistent with this Strategic Plan, based on adequate assessment of biodiversity, its value and threats, with responsibilities allocated among sectors, levels of government, and other stakeholders, and coordination mechanisms are in place to ensure implementation of the actions needed.

And this one, almost works as a haiku:

3. By 2020
Subsidies harmful
to biodiversity
are eliminat…

Well, maybe not a 5-7-5 haiku. Still, the 20 targets make for a good, if detailed, read. I’m actually tempted to see how they might fare as a poem: if I stack them one by one, and then giving it the title, “By 2020.”

The purpose of this long and comprehensive list of targets, of course, is to address the vagueness discussed before. This is a good thing: but how wieldy these discussions will be, especially in the context of 190+ COP members needing to reach an agreement remains to be seen. In light of this, maybe structuring this discussion around a more simple list is better.

I quite like the suggestions laid out in this recent paper, “Biodiversity targets after 2010″ by Mace et al. (pdf). For starters, it’s written in a pretty readable fashion, but more importantly, it tries to break the targets into three defined categories, as described in this box.

This seems pretty clever to me. Let’s break up the priorities depending on: (1) whether the loss in biodiversity is directly “bad” for you (as well as anthrocentric commenters); (2) whether the loss in biodiversity results in a loss of sociological and/or cultural value (i.e. makes you “sad”); and (3) what kind of things are needed in order to tackle the previous two. If viewed in this manner, the hope is that everyone can find something of value in this process. In fact, I think an important part of 3 (or the blue target) is to also showcase how closely tied 1 and 2 are to each other (things that make you “sad” are often things with a direct “bad” effect – often an effect you’re not necessarily prepared for).

In any event, let’s end with a list of priorities, whittled from our “By 2020″ poem, and worded explicitly for those of you who don’t wish to read the strategic document outlined earlier. In fact, let’s borrow from a great list seen at the IYB UK website. Here they suggest that at the very least, Nagoya COP10 can provide the following:

1. A new set of targets to protect our natural resources that are achievable and measurable.

2. A protocol for fair access to, and sharing the benefits from, the world’s genetic resources. This is called the Access and Benefit Sharing (ABS) protocol.

3. The need to put a fair economic value on nature’s services that are currently used for free, such as fertile soil, pollination of our crops, and flood defences. This will be based on The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity (TEEB) report.

4. Support for establishing a single source for access to reliable scientific evidence which can be used to inform policy decisions on biodiversity issues. This is called the Intergovernmental science-policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) and will operate in a similar way that the IPCC informs climate change policy.

My favourite is the first one, which in a sort of grant-proposal-speak, is basically asking for a strong and kick ass Nagoya agreement.

Now, what can you do to help move this along? Well, on the high effort scale, you can obviously get involved in various biodiversity outreach programs. I’m sure there are many in your local neck of the woods. However, at the lower end of the effort scale, just being vocal about such things is a good star (even if you disagree heartily about everything I’ve written). Dialogue generates more dialogue which then generates debate which then generates noise which then, if you’re lucky, might generate notice from the government players, which is what you hope for.

The timing is also interesting politically. For the US, biodiversity has inadvertently been pushed into the public’s consciousness by the horrible Deepwater Horizon oil spill. The images and stories presented have been visceral and gut wrenching, and tragically informative in providing a look at how a locale is closely tied to its ecosystem. In the UK, Nagoya COP10 is Prime Minister Cameron’s first real test on the environmental front – so there’s lots of eyeballs monitoring his government’s action. And in Canada, where my home is… well… Stephen Harper should be well aware that the sweater vests he loves so dearly are very much a product of biodiversity.

Anyway, I’m hoping you can just go on and make some online noise. For example, those four priorities above seemed primed for a twitter rework. Or maybe just come up with any creative/witty/funny/deep twitter line. You can even stick a #nagoyaCOP10 hashtag in there. It would be interesting to see what great lines people can come up with.

    Current ye@r *